I find myself in the middle of what will be one of the most interesting contests of the coming general election. The constituency of Luton South is shaping up to be a very exciting three way, maybe even four way, fight.
UK Polling Report describes Luton South as “the most reliable bellwether seat in the country” given that it and its predecessors have elected an MP from a party that went on to form the government at every general election since 1951. So a casual look at the constituency would suggest a win for the Conservatives based on the likely national swing to them this year. But things are a lot more complex than that.
Local Liberal Democrats have had a long standing hostility to Margaret Moran, Luton South’s current Member of Parliament. Something which sits in sharp contrast to the wary respect we have for her fellow Labour MP for Luton North, Kelvin Hopkins. This hostility seemed to be vindicated when her career was shredded in the expenses scandal. One of the worst cases of abuse of the parliamentary expenses system that last year’s revelations revealed was her claims for public money to treat the dry rot in her home in Southampton.
Moran is not to stand again and for the last few months has been “off sick”. I don’t really understand how you can do that as an MP. Nevertheless, I suspect that her illness is unlikely to get better before the election. Labour’s vote declined significantly at the 2005 election, and I am expecting a further decline this time, but how much extra it will fall because of the ‘Moran effect’ remains to be seen.
Moran’s misdemeanours alone would have raised the profile of the constituency, but then we had the intervention of Esther Rantzen. I am naturally suspicious of celebrity candidates but Rantzen’s reputation as a national campaigner means that she deserves to be treated with some degree of respect. She has certainly been active in the local media and is regularly out and about building a profile within the constituency.
Despite the hype I think it very unlikely she can win. As an independent what she lacks is the ability to campaign on the ground – deliver leaflets, knock on doors – and I have seen no evidence that she is able to address this problem. But she will gain some votes. The real questions are who will she take those votes from and which other candidate will benefit.
Perhaps surprisingly, I think the Tories face some of the same problems that Esther has. Their man is Nigel Huddleston, who appears to be a rather identikit Conservative candidate. To give him credit he has also been active in the local media and regularly out and about in the constituency. But also like Esther he lacks a proper on the ground campaign. Apart from the small bit of the constituency which lies outside the boundaries of Luton Borough Council, the Conservatives have no councillors in the constituency. Their area of real activity at the local level is in Luton North. So I suspect that Huddleston will be reliant on both national support from Conservative HQ and the extent of the national swing if he is to take the seat.
Labour has selected Gavin Shuker as their candidate. He has local credentials but is not well known in Luton politics. He narrowly beat a much more high profile Asian councillor in the Labour selection contest. However, Labour is the incumbent party, they do have councillors in the seat, currently they have a majority on the Council, and an active local party. Their ability to hang on, despite Moran, shouldn’t be underestimated.
Also not to be underestimated are the Liberal Democrats. Alright I am biased, but we have an excellent local candidate in Qurban Hussain. He is they only declared candidate from an Asian background and the Asian vote is significant in Luton South. He has a high profile having been our candidate last time, when we increased our vote by over eleven percent, and a local councillor and active campaigner over many years. We are also strong in parts of the seat at council level having held wards in the east of the constituency since, well, since I can remember.
As a local party the Liberal Democrats are already fighting are more organised and extensive campaign in this seat than we have at previous elections. There is a feeling that we really have a genuine chance in Luton South this time.
The background to the battle for Luton South may be a scandal and a celebrity candidate – but the reality on the ground is much more complex. There is the potential for the candidates from any of the three main parties to win. Add to that Esther and a smattering of other independents and other small parties and you have a fascinating contest.
I intend to be blogging updates from the battle for Luton South as the campaign develops.